The Long Blue Line: Cutters Sea Cloud and Hoquiam—Barrier-breaking ships in U.S. Desegregation

Friday, November 3, 2017

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

Photograph of the USS Sea Cloud. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Photograph of the USS Sea Cloud. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

This vessel . . . performed all its duty creditably, survived all inspections and had no major problems. There was no segregation by compartments, departments or messes and white and colored performed the duties of their rates.
Lt. Cmdr. Carlton Skinner, Coast Guard-manned USS Hoquiam

In the quote above, Skinner related the success he experienced as captain of the desegregated warship USS Hoquiam, which he commanded in the North Pacific in the midst of World War II. In 1944, Coast Guard-manned Hoquiam became the nation’s second experiment in desegregating a U.S. warship. In 1943, the Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud had served as the federal government’s first deliberate test of desegregation of a U.S. ship.

Photograph of the USS Sea Cloud. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Photograph of the USS Sea Cloud. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Skinner first reported aboard Sea Cloud as executive officer in November 1943. He took command after his first weather patrol and oversaw the first experiment in racial integration on board a U.S. warship. Earlier, he sent a memorandum up the Coast Guard chain-of-command recommending training for African-American seamen in ratings other than food service, the only ratings open to minorities at that time. The commandant approved Skinner’s request and began assigning black seamen to the Sea Cloud. Within a few months, there were over 50 African-Americans assigned to the Sea Cloud. The cutter’s African-American men included lieutenants Joseph Jenkins, Clarence Samuels and Harvey Russell, Sea Cloud’s African-American commissioned officers. Jenkins and Russell had graduated from the service’s Reserve Officer Training Program at the Coast Guard Academy while Samuels came up through the enlisted ranks. Skinner had requested no special treatment or publicity and the Sea Cloud successfully carried out its missions like any other warship assigned to weather patrol duty. Skinner reported no significant problems and the Sea Cloud passed two Navy Atlantic Fleet inspections with no deficiencies.

USS Sea Cloud crew mustered on the dock during its deployment as a cutter and weather ship. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

USS Sea Cloud crew mustered on the dock during its deployment as a cutter and weather ship. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

In 1944, Skinner and his crew transferred to new assignments. After his tour aboard Sea Cloud, Samuels took command of a lightship armed and converted into a picket ship at the Panama Canal Zone. He was the first minority officer to command a U.S. warship in a combat zone. In the spring of 1944, Skinner assumed command of Coast Guard-manned USS Hoquiam, a frigate that patrolled the North Pacific. When Skinner reported aboard Hoquiam, he brought with him about 30 African-American enlisted men and Jenkins and Russell from the Sea Cloud. Hoquiam successfully performed convoy escort duty along the Aleutian Island chain through the spring of 1945 when it was decommissioned and transferred to Russia as part of the Allies’ Lend-Lease Program.

Lt. Joseph Jenkins and Lt. Clarence Samuels on rolling deck of the USS Sea Cloud in the North Atlantic. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Lt. Joseph Jenkins and Lt. Clarence Samuels on rolling deck of the USS Sea Cloud in the North Atlantic. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

After their tours aboard Hoquiam, Skinner and his officers found assignments that continued to advance integration of the U.S. armed services. After commanding Hoquiam, Skinner served as an advisor to the U.S. Navy in its first experiment in desegregation with the destroyer escort USS Mason. In January 1945, Jenkins briefly commanded a cutter based in Boston becoming the first recognized African-American officer to command a U.S. ship. In 1945, Russell transferred to the Coast Guard-manned U.S. Army tanker TY-45 in the Southwest Pacific. He commanded the all white crew through 1946 becoming the Coast Guard’s third African-American cutter captain. Russell later broke the corporate color barrier as vice president of the Pepsi-Cola Company.

Sea Cloud and Hoquiam proved barrier-breaking efforts in the desegregation of the U.S. sea services. Unlike the U.S. Navy’s first desegregated ships, Sea Cloud and Hoquiam’s white and black crew members shared the same sleeping quarters and ate at the same mess tables. African-American Coast Guard officers also broke the color barrier at white officer’s clubs for the first time in U.S. history. On board Sea Cloud and Hoquiam, white and black Coast Guardsmen served together in close quarters proving for the first time that desegregation could succeed even under the most confined and stressful wartime conditions.

6.Patrol frigate Hoquiam, a Coast Guard-manned warship in the North Pacific on which Jenkins and Russell served together a second time. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

6. Patrol frigate Hoquiam, a Coast Guard-manned warship in the North Pacific on which Jenkins and Russell served together a second time. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

 


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